Part 2: Why Luke traced Jesus through Nathan rather than Solomon

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a direct continuation from Why did Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy through David’s son Nathan and not Solomon?

Unfortunately we cannot track down the beginning of the Jewish tradition that the messiah was to emerge from David via his son Nathan. Marshall Johnson considers suggestions that it began in the days of the later Maccabees with priests challenged the legitimacy of monarchical rule but finds them flawed.

Zechariah 12:10-14 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn . . . .  The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shim′e-ites by itself . . .

So according to Marshall we can do nothing more than rely on the scant evidence we do have that indicates that at the time the “Old Testament” book of Zechariah was written the family of Nathan had significant prominence in Judea. Who that Nathan was at that time we do not know. He could have been David’s son or he could have been the prophet. What we do know is that at some point the Nathan in Zechariah 12:12 was identified with both the son of David and the prophet. Marshall believes that the best we can do at this point is accept Eusebius’s explanation that Nathan was given his place in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus as a result of a difference of opinion among Jews over the ancestry of the Messiah. See the previous post: Matthew’s genealogy represented one school of thought; Luke’s genealogy represented another school of thought that believed the “curse of Jeconiah” in the book of Jeremiah made any messianic line through David’s royal line impossible. Jeremiah 22

24 “As I live, says the Lord, though Coni′ah the son of Jehoi′akim, king of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off 25 and give you into the hand of those who seek your life, into the hand of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hand of Nebuchadrez′zar king of Babylon and into the hand of the Chalde′ans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But to the land to which they will long to return, there they shall not return. 28 Is this man Coni′ah a despised, broken pot, a vessel no one cares for? Why are he and his children hurled and cast into a land which they do not know? 29 O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord! 30 Thus says the Lord: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.”

The best available explanation for Luke tracing the line of the messiah through Nathan, therefore, is that there was a division of viewpoints among Jewish scribes over the possibility of David’s royal line yielding the messiah and Luke expressed the alternative school of thought to the one represented in Matthew. Johnson also believes that the internal evidence in the Gospel of Luke indicates that the author had a strong motive to want to give Jesus a prophet as an ancestor. Nathan, identified as a prophet as well as son of David, therefore, takes on a special significance in this gospel. So what is the evidence that the author or final redactor of Luke-Acts had a particularly strong interest in giving Jesus the messiah descent from a prophet?

1. “There is throughout the Lukan corpus an appeal to the prophets of the OT as witness to the validity of the ministry of Jesus”

The OT prophets are regularly labelled as “prophets of old” (προφήτης των άρχαίων), setting Jesus apart as the new prophet:

— Luke 9:8, 19; Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21.

OT prophets are frequently referenced, sometimes called “holy”:

— Acts 3: 18, 24; 7: 42; 10: 43; 13: 40; 15: 15; 26: 27; Luke 18: 31; 24: 25, 27, 44

Individual prophets referenced, and most notably David is listed as one of the prophets:

— Isaiah: Luke 3:454: 17; Acts 8: 28; 28: 25; cf. 7: 48 — Joel: Acts 2: 16 — Samuel: Acts 3: 28; 13: 20, 27 — Moses: Luke 24: 27; Acts 3: 22 — Elijah: Luke 1: 17; 4: 25-6; 9: 8, 19, 30 ff., 54 — Elisha: Luke 4:27 — David: Acts 2: 30

Luke includes the prophets in the end-times banquet (unlike Matthew): Luke 13: 28

Luke 10:24 “For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

2. “Luke considers also the ministry of Jesus in a large part to be a prophetic ministry.”

Right from the birth narratives both John and Jesus are introduced as prophetic figures and the substance of prophecy:

— Luke 1: 76; of angels, 1: 13-17, 30-36; of Mary, (1:46-55); of Zechariah (1:67-79); of Simeon (2:29-35); of Anna (2:36-38)

Jesus himself is presented as both a prophet and the fulfilment of prophecy:

— Luke 4: 24; 4: 21; 4: 25-27; 9:8, 19 — these passages are taken over from Mark (and some would argue Matthew as well) but we have the additional references created by Luke himself. . . .
— Luke 7: 11-17 . . .

Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’

— Luke 7: 39 (Simon the Pharisee ponders the question of Jesus being a prophet)
— Luke 13: 33 (The Passion is said to be the fulfilment of the role of a prophet – cf 11: 47-51)
— Luke 24: 19; Acts 7: 52
— Luke 24: 25-27
— Acts 12: 13-26 (Jesus is the prophet to come like Moses as per Deut. 18: 15)
— Acts 7: 37 (Again, Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophet like Moses, Dt 18:15)

Johnson concludes:

I would agree with the position of Lampe:

Jesus [in Luke-Acts] stands in the succession of prophets who were persecuted and martyred by the Jews of Jerusalem; like them, therefore, he must meet his death in the capital. . . Jesus thus stands at the climax of the prophetic tradition, heralded by the last and greatest of the prophets of the old order. He is himself marked out from the latter as one greater than they. . . .’ 

The evidence of both Luke and Acts, therefore, allows us to conclude that Luke interprets Jesus’ ministry as the ministry of a prophet, but a prophet who stands in a pivotal position in sacred history. (p. 251, my formatting and bolding)

3. Thirdly, Luke also views the church as a continuation of the prophetic ministry . . . “

Acts opens with the fulfilment of the Pentecost prophecy of Joel (2: 17-18) and Christian prophets regularly appear throughout (11: 27; 13: 1; 15: 32; 19: 6; 21: 10).


Marshall Johnson rounds off the above case with this conclusion:

When the genealogy is seen in the light of this strong emphasis on prophecy, the Jewish identification of David’s son, Nathan, with the prophet takes on added significance. Luke obviously had some reason to choose to lead the genealogy of Jesus from David through Nathan rather than through the royalty of Judah. The explanation which best accounts for the evidence is that Luke was aware of the Jewish tradition which identified the two Nathans of II Samuel and constructed (or edited) his genealogy in accordance with his view of the importance of prophecy in the OT and also in the ministry of Jesus. (pp. 251-252)

It’s a plausible explanation, I think. I don’t think the evidence is strong enough to bet my house on it being the correct answer. But it appears to me to be a position worth adopting pending better evidence to some other solution.

Johnson, Marshall D. 2002. The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 2nd ed. Eugene, Or., Wipf and Stock.



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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Part 2: Why Luke traced Jesus through Nathan rather than Solomon”

  1. A key problem with Solomon: he had many foreign, non-Jewish wives. This was in the old manner of kings: marrying daughters of potentially enemy neighbors, to make diplomacy smoother.

    Relating to this, the wisdom and “wisdom” sayings attributed to Solomon, reflect not just particularly Jewish ideas. But more, a much broader, general tradition, found in countless neighboring cultures.

    So one main problem that some had with Solomon? Was that he wasn’t fully, loyally … Jewish. Thanks to his broader education.

    Prophets in contrast, were probably more provincial, local boys. Who were far narrower. And far more attached to only local Jewish ideas. Which they fiercely defended and advocated.

    Prophets were partly the provincial superpatriots of their day. Who warned that any deviation from local, purely Jewish traditions, would incur the Jewish god ‘s terrible wrath.

    1. Let’s not forget the state of literacy back then. Those who left us written material were from a very tiny slice of the elite. No need, I suspect, to take everything they imply at face value. If a text claims to come from “provincial local boys” we know from the start that that’s just a facade. Local provincial boys never went to a “grammar school”.

      1. Good point. Though still a fair of Zionism managed to get through some books, more than others?

        I’d guess that your remarks are particularly true, certainly, of the New Testament. Less than the Old?

  2. I wonder if the reason Luke followed the path through Nathan could have been, as you suggest, that the main point he wanted to make was that this Messianic person(Jesus) was to act in a Prophetic manner. He spoke in a manner that was not going to operate on a literal level. Israel was looking for a Davidic King, one to re-establish the kingdom and restore the tribes. They did not seem to understand how their history would play out these last 2,000 years. Could Luke not have been pointing to this other hidden aspect of the notions of the Messiah, this Messiah ben Joseph as juxtaposed with the Messiah ben David? In my reading of the N.T. everyone was looking for a “Ben David”. I can think of no person in the N.T.(Gospels) who understood Jesus mission as being Prophetic in the sense, that he was speaking of one to come later and not speaking of himself. Rather interesting and thought provoking post.

    1. My own views on what was understood by “the messiah” or “a messiah” are still in flux. Expect more posts as I read more and, more likely than not, modify my own understanding.

    1. By the standards of other historical disciplines, the sources we have for Paul and Luke do not allow us to form any conclusions about the veracity of the historical narratives and traditions that have been handed down to us about them.

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